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Virtuella's Idiosyncratic Literary Criticisms  by Virtuella

Some twenty years ago, I wrote an essay on the use of water as a motif in Goethe’s poetry and found a remarkable variety of connotations. I thought it might be interesting to do the same for LOTR and see what I find. As it turned out, I found quite a few things.

Water as a barrier

This is the most common use of the motif in the trilogy. The Sundering Sea separates the Undying Lands from Middle-earth, the Brandywine River, the Bruinen, the Anduin, the Nimrodel, the Silverlode and the Entwash all serve as natural borders. The hideout of the Ithilien rangers is hidden by a curtain of water. Most of these examples fulfil protective functions.

Crossing rivers is a significant plot element that is used repeatedly. The hobbits cross the Brandywine River at Bucklebury Ferry, thus escaping the ring wraiths. The crossing of the Bruinen leads to the big showdown with the ring wraiths. An improvised rope bridge allows the fellowship to cross the Nimrodel into Lothlorien. In each of the three cases the crossing of water represents an escape to safety, because the rivers are barriers that the pursuers cannot cross for one reason or another.

This motif is ironically inverted when the fellowship keep to the western shore of the Anduin in the erroneous assumption that danger awaits them on the eastern shore, only to be attacked by orcs on the perceived “safe” side of the river.

Finally, Frodo and Sam cross the Anduin into danger, another inversion of the crossing-into-safety motif.

Water in the locus amoenus

Given Tolkien’s affinity with literary topoi, it is noteworthy that there is only one true locus amoenus in LOTR, and that is Caras Galadhon. Wikipedia defines the function of the locus amoenus as an “idealized place of safety or comfort” and a “place of refuge from the processes of time and mortality.” Both functions are clearly fulfilled here. The three classic elements of the locus amoenus are present: trees, grass and water. The fountain is traditionally a motif that signifies renewal of life, which fits neatly with the role of the Lothlorien setting as a place of respite. Note that Lothlorien is also surrounded by water, so that both arrival and departure of the fellowship are via rivers.

No Water in the locus terribilis

The locus terribilis is a bit more flexible with regard to its fittings, and might either contain no water at all, thus being a dry and desolate place, or on the other hand feature wild and threatening bodies of water such as torrential rivers or stormy seas. I can identify three settings in LOTR that I would count as a locus terribilis: the Barrow Downs, Moria and Mordor. Water is absent from these places - to the degree that lack of water becomes a major problem for Frodo and Sam on their journey through Mordor. * By having water present in the locus amoenus but not in the locus terribilis, Tolkien suggests a fundamental affiliation of water with the “good side.” I suspect this is due to the association of water with Ulmo.

*I am not counting the subterrean lake in Moria here, because the fellowship do not encounter it during their journey. See further down for an interpretation of its function.

Water as a weapon

A similar pattern can be seen in the use of water as a weapon. The hobbits’ habitual fear of even calm and tame bodies of water may seem a little ridiculous (though admittedly Frodo’s parents did drown), but it acknowledges, albeit in exaggerated form, the destructive power of water. In LOTR, this destructive power is used on two occasions; in the rising of the Bruinen and in the deluge of Isengard. In both cases it is the “good side” that utilizes the power of water as a weapon. Neither Sauron nor Saruman appear to have much power over water, though they make extensive use of the destructive force of fire, while Gandalf can make use of both water and fire. Note also that the Balrog, a creature of fire, is extinguished in the subterrean lake. It is an interesting point that at the very root of a mountain which is described as evil, we find water and that this water helps to save the “goodie” and defeat the “baddie.”

So again we find water affiliated with the “good side.” I believe that while Ulmo does not make a personal appearance in LOTR, he is nevertheless present in the sense that water acts as a force for Good. This fits with his role as the the Valar who was arguably most committed to Middle-earth and most fiercely opposed to Morgoth.

The dangerous lure of water

However, the identification of water with the Good is not without exception. We find two examples of water that contains some hidden evil: the river Withywindle and the pond on the gates of Moria. Note that in both cases it is not the water itself that is evil, but a creature lurking in or beside it: the Old Man Willow and the Watcher in the Water respectively. Water has thus been poisoned or defiled, something that Frodo notices instinctively on the approach to the Moria gate when he shudders in disgust at the touch of the water. However, Old Man Willow is not a servant of Sauron, and the Watcher in the Water may also be a creature that pursues nothing but its own evil interests.

Withywindle with its soporific effects can also be read as a secularized version of Lethe, the ancient stream of the underworld, which brings forgetfulness and loss of self.

Water and magic

I have already mentioned the rising of the Bruinen. This is attributed to a form of protective magic that can distinguish between friend and foe of Rivendell. It is the only example within LOTR where the naturally protective function of a river is thus magically amplified. Two other bodies of water are associated with magic. One is the Mirrormere, which reflects the surrounding mountains and shows a crown of stars in the depth even in bright daylight. It is a static kind of magic, which seems to have remained unchanged for millennia, and it could maybe better be described as a mystery. Its counterpart, Galadriel’s mirror, is dynamic and the images it shows are fleeting and unreliable. Both magic mirrors have a profound effect on the people who look into them. They can also be seen to reflect the attitudes of Dwarves and Elves respectively. Dwarves look at the world in terms of solid values, works of metal or stone, things that can be expected to remain unchanged like the image in Mirrormere. To elves, from their perspective of immortality, the world appears as a quick succession of fleeting pictures, just like the ones shown in Galadriel’s mirror. I think it is not by chance that Galadriel’s mirror is not a fixed object, but is freshly refilled every time she looks into it. Both Galadriel’s mirror and the Mirrormere represent a form of magic that is not so much practical and functional (like the spell on the Bruinen), but intangible, metaphysical and transformatory. The images shown are ambivalent, and it remains unclear how exactly they relate to reality.

Dreamflower reminded me to mention the Ent-draught, and I think it fits into this context. Whether or not it is actually magic is beyond me to ascertain, but it is certainly potent. Like Galadriel's mirror, the Ent-draught has transformatory propensities. Obviously, it transforms the body - does it also transform the mind? I am not sure about this. 

Also, I am trying to decide whether or not Wellinghall would be another locus amoenus. But on the whole, I think it is too “weird” a place. It fulfils the function, though!

Water and death 

I can think of three instances where water is associated with death. The most obvious one is the Dead Marches with their stagnant waters that bring up images of the Dead. This motif is also related to the magic waters described above, in that they show ambivalent images, the reality of which is not clearly defined.

The waterfall of Henneth Annûn is primarily a protection, but it flows down into the Forbidden Pool, which carries the threat of death for anyone unauthorized who sets eyes on it. This death threat is not due to any intrinsic quality of the pool, but is the result of a cultural attribution which renders it as taboo.

The third example is the Falls of Rauros, which carried away Boromir’s funeral boat. Tolkien leaves it ambivalent whether or not the boat continued to travel downriver and into the ocean, but in any case the river Anduin, like the Withywindle mentioned above, takes on connotations of one of the rivers of the ancient underworld, this time the Styx.

Water with an ornamental function

We have two instances of water used in a purely ornamental function: The spring that emerges from the stone-carved horse’s head in front of the Golden Hall in Edoras and the fountain in the court of the White Tree in Minas Tirith. Here, water represents urban refinement and civilization. The water is tamed and subdued; it does exactly what people want it to do. It is a witness to the skill and achievements of Man.

The Water Sprite

In Goldberry, Tolkien has given us an anthropomorphic personification of water. While it remains unclear what her exact origin is (A Maia? An Elf? A nature spirit?), her role as an incarnation of water is very obvious. Water imagery abounds in the chapter “In the House of Tom Bombadil:” Goldberry’s hair “ripples”, her colours are silver and green and she sits among a collection of water-lilies. Tom wears clothes the colour of “rain-washed forget-me-nots.” The water served in Bombadil’s house has the effect of wine. Merry dreams about a flood. It rains almost during the entire stay of the hobbits, and Bombadil refers to this as “Goldberry’s wash-day” – a reference to the purifying quality of water, another classic motif.


I claim by no means that the examples listed above are comprehensive. They are simply the ones that strike me as the most prominent and significant. Tolkien uses the motif of water in a variety of ways, and creatively utilizes traditional topoi in this context to support the metastructure of the novel. Many of these uses are associated with change: Water as a barrier indicates a change at the moment of crossing, water as a weapon and water as a form of magic both bring about changes. In line with this, the most numerous and most prominent bodies of water in the novel are rivers, i.e. moving water. It could be said that water in LOTR represents a dynamic concept that both embodies and induces change. Change is, of course, one of the main themes of the novel.

There is an implicit affiliation of water with the “good side”, which may or may not echo the presence of Ulmo in Middle-earth. However, this identification remains ambivalent, as the examples of dangerous or defiled water and water associated with death show. Overall, water as a motif in LOTR is in my opinion a good example of how Tolkien uses the physical landscape to construct the metastructure and illuminate the underlying themes of the novel.


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